Someday Buying a Vibrator Will Be as Boring as Buying an iPod

What if buying a vibrator were as commonplace and uneventful as popping into the Apple store for an iPod or buying a juicer from Williams-Sonoma? That's exactly what Ethan Imboden, founder of the company Jimmyjane is aiming for, and he's well on his way to achieving it. For nearly a decade, he's been a pioneer in changing vibrators from gaudy pieces of crap you buy in secret to high-quality, high-design electronics that you buy in regular stores in the same way you would any other gadget. But for Imboden it's not just about bringing sex toys out into the open; it's also about changing the way we talk about sex itself.

Imboden, 40, didn't start off with a background in sex toys. He has an electrical engineering degree from Johns Hopkins and a master's in industrial design from Pratt. As he explained in a new profile of his business in The Atlantic, he got into this business after a client asked him to look into making a sex toy, and he attended a sex toy industry expo that made him realize the market was dominated by low-quality crap, or, as he describes it, "severed anatomy, goofy animals, and penis-pump flashing-lights kind of stuff." He realized that this huge market—Americans spend around $1.3 billion on sex toys every year—was just sitting there, waiting to be given something better. He says,

As soon as I saw past the fact that in front of me happened to be two penises fused together at the base, I realized that I was looking at the only category of consumer product that had yet to be touched by design. It's as if the only food that had been available was in the candy aisle, like Dum Dums and Twizzlers, where it's really just about a marketing concept and a quick rush and very little emphasis on nourishment and real enjoyment. The category had been isolated by the taboo that surrounded it. I figured, I can transcend that.

Imboden realized that the people who buy vibrators are the same people who buy the newest sleek phones and other design-heavy gadgets. They spend money, they care about how things are made, but they'd been buying crap for so long because it was still considered taboo, and there wasn't a vocal group of consumers demanding something better.

So he set out to give us something better, even if we didn't know we needed it, and now he's become a kind of Steve Jobs for the sex toy industry. He's made a company that specializes in beautifully designed products that work and are designed to last—a quality he insisted on after his previous job designing things like cell phones and electronic toothbrushes soured him on designing disposable things that just end up in a landfill. He initially faced a great deal of resistance to his idea that vibrators could be sold in low-key, white packaging (a la iPhones) and need not look like throbbing penises or wild 'n' crazy contraptions. But he's proven the doubters wrong by showing there's a big market for what he's selling, and now he's spawned a whole movement, with other companies following the same model he developed.

But while safe, quality materials, careful attention to detail, and, yes, superior function, have all been a big part of Jimmyjane's success, it's also been about changing the conversation and the way people think about sex toys. Imboden has approached marketing his devices by operating from a place where it's no big deal to buy a sex toy. The message the brand focuses on is portraying vibrators as being a lifestyle item, same as an iPad or anything else you'd throw in your luggage. There is no shock factor or salaciousness, and that makes it easier for people to talk about these things with a straight face. This changes not only the way people buy vibrators, but the way they think about the pleasure they receive from them. As Isaacson puts it,

Insinuating beautifully designed and thoughtfully engineered sex toys into the mainstream consumer landscape could push Americans into more comfortable territory around sex in general.

Imagine a world where sex toys are bought and used with no giggling or blushing involved. So far that seems to be happening, at least where Jimmyjane products are concerned. Imboden was careful to start by selling his products at high-end places like Space.NK, C.O. Bigelow, and W Hotels, and he also insinuated his product into the celebrity set by putting them into gift bags at major events. This got him some major buzz and helped raise the volume on the national vibrator conversation.

Now Jimmyjane's sleek, accessible products have moved even more into the mainstream and are being sold at places like Sephora, Drugstore.com and the Sharper Image. By bringing the product to store shelves and making ads in the same kind of no-nonsense way, Jimmyjane is part of a larger trend toward doing away with nearly a century of tradition that dictated that vibrators weren't spoken about openly. This change in attitude began largely thanks to Sex and the City making The Rabbit famous, but now Jimmyjane and other companies like it are bringing the vibrator out of the sex shops and into the regular shops. Where you used to buy "personal massagers," now you can buy vibrators—and very nice vibrators at that.

As the discussion moves out of dimly-lit back rooms, larger companies are taking notice and trying to get in on what is a very large market. A 2009 study from Indiana University found that 53 percent of women in the U.S. and nearly half of all men have used vibrators. That means they're about twice as common among adults as condoms are. Jimmyjane's data shows that men and women buy vibrators in equal numbers, and no age group has a lock on these toys. Everyone is buying them all over the place, basically. (Heck, even the Christians are investing in them—though they're still talking about them in more old-fashioned terms.) Eager to tap into this big market, companies like Trojan are making sex toys and selling them at major retailers like Walgreens, Target, and even Wal-mart. Sexual wellness is becoming a big category for these stores, with sales of "sexual enhancement devices" up 20 percent at "mass food and drug retailers." And that's not even counting home-party direct sales, which are also doing big business.

Jim Daniels, Trojan's former vice president for marketing, says, "Vibrators are already mainstream." Well, our work here is done. So now that Jimmyjane has helped deliver us to a place where we are—or will soon be—as comfortable throwing a vibrator in our shopping cart as we are Q-tips and razors, they're set to make even more money. As consumers become more discerning, Imboden thinks it will be companies that are "forthright, trusted and accountable, like an intimate partner," that will succeed. Oh, he also says they also need to "give great orgasms." Luckily for him, he's positioned his company to do exactly that, and now that he's revolutionized the sex toy market, he's busy planning for the future. He says he's working on developing technologies that will "fundamentally alter the way that we interact with these products." What exactly does that mean? According to The Atlantic,

Imagine wearable sensors—embedded in clothing, or a bracelet—that operate according to heart rate, blood pressure and skin response. Imagine devices that communicate via a personal area network, connecting sexual partners in ways they don't even realize.

Whoa, that sounds like something that could really put the new iPad (even if you can have sex with it) to shame. Maybe in the future, Christmas shoppers will line up outside Walmart looking for good deals on sex toys, and they'll start a stampede for vibrators instead of DVD players.

Can a Better Vibrator Inspire an Age of Great American Sex? [Atlantic]